Early on the timeline of Florida tourism, decades before beachgoing became “the thing,” vacationers and winterers congregated around the state’s wealth of freshwater springs, known for their healthful benefits and effervescent beauty. Today, they remain magnets for snorkelers, divers, paddlers, and anyone ready to cool off in water climate-controlled by nature at around 70–72 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, I immerse you in nine of my favorites from more than 1,000 freshwater springs around the state.
Some destinations herein have hosted me as a journalist, but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
1. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
At the receiving end of a hug from a baby manatee: That’s a wildlife experience I can’t imagine I’ll ever top in my lifetime. He approached me, then hung vertically in front of my snorkel mask as I scratched him — according to protocol — with one hand, then folded my arm with his two fins to his heart. I fell in love right there in Three Sisters Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
You can hardly swing a kayak paddle in Crystal River’s waters without hitting a spring; the King’s Bay area counts 70 of them. The most popular for its beauty and brimming manatee population, Three Sisters Springs is accessible by boating and swimming, except during peak manatee season — generally mid-November through March — depending on water temperatures. The mammoth and gentle sea mammals herd into the protected window-clear waters for warmth and protection. A boardwalk trail allows visitors to behold the sight of bank-to-bank manatees. When I last visited, the trail was closed for restoration to accommodate an ever-growing manatee population. It is scheduled to reopen in November 2023.
Pro Tip: Most accommodations in Crystal River have access to the water, but Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast sits in the midst of House Spring and Hunter Springs, steps from the charming cottage’s backdoor.
2. Blue Spring State Park
After my Crystal River experience, manatees immediately became my top criterium for the best springs in Florida. Manatees, like humans, frequent Florida springs for the water temps. Rather than looking to cool off in the summer, however, they head to the springs to keep warm in the winter. Blue Spring State Park tallies more than 700 manatees in its spring run in the winter season. Although the run is closed off to swimming and paddling November 15–March 1, observers can follow the 0.3-mile nature trail from the first-magnitude springhead to St. Johns River, which it feeds. (Florida has 33 recognized first-magnitude springs, defined as those discharging an average of 100 cubic feet of water per second.)
Pro Tip: The 2-hour St. Johns River Cruise takes you to beautiful vistas and into the past. Boats are wheelchair-accessible and senior discounts apply.
3. Ocala National Forest
Right outside the city of Ocala, Silver Springs may be the region’s — possibly the state’s — most recognized springs. Famous early on for its glass-bottom boats, the amusement-park-style turns me instead toward my preference for natural springs. My favorites in these vast federal lands are also first-magnitude springs. Juniper Springs’ picturesque, pool-like setting reflects an old-mill waterwheel and bridge. Fish flit around your feet in the shallows of small bubbling springs, which segue to the deeper main springhead. Along the spring run, river otters play and the park’s signature albino gray squirrels frolic in the woods. It’s a true natural paradise.
4. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
When it comes to first-magnitude springs, Wakulla Springs, protected by Wakulla Springs State Park, ranks as one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. Recreationally, it too places high on the scale with a roped swimming area, a dive platform, boat tours, and an exquisite historic lodge — a showcase of marble, cypress, and fine craftsmanship. On the narrated boat tour, learn about the springs’ prehistoric past, yesteryear’s Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon film shootings, and today’s array of wildlife — manatees, alligators, and myriad birds.
5. DeLeon Springs State Park
The only way you could improve upon the attraction of natural Florida springs, in my estimation, is to involve food. The spring and its healing waters date back to Native Americans, and later, it attracted tourists and naturalist John James Audubon. Used during the Civil War to power a mill to grind sugarcane, it retains that heritage with its Old Sugar Mill Pancake House, where you make your own griddle cakes. Other ways to sample the springs’ heritage: Have a healthy dip in the cool waters of the bathing area or take a tour with Fountain of Youth Eco/History Tours.
Pro Tip: Want to extend your stay? Plan on an overnight at the historic DeLand Hotel and tour the town’s breweries and restaurants. Persimmon Hollow Brewing is the first and best craft brewery downtown.
6. Rainbow Springs State Park
A collaboration of nature and human creation, Rainbow Springs State Park is one of the state’s most popular — thanks to its extensive recreational opportunities. Nature’s work shows in the high-flow, window-clear springs and the old-growth forest festooned with Spanish moss. The lushness steals your breath before you even reach the headsprings and plunge into the chill baptism of pure waters. Here, man has built a swimming area with canoe and kayak rentals and a sand beach. The park also holds a campground and is known for its tubing on the Rainbow River fed by the springs. Manmade gardens and waterfalls date back to when the park was a privately owned tourist attraction.
Pro Tip: Arrive early to the headsprings swimming area. Once the parking lot fills, the entrance closes.
7. Ginnie Springs
Although many Florida springs were first developed as private attractions ranging from recreational opportunities to amusement parks, several have been taken over by state or federal park lands. Ginnie Springs is one that has retained its privately owned status and done so with minimal commercialism. It ranks as one of the state’s most popular springs for scuba diving, from beginners to certified cave divers. The springs feed the Santa Fe River, where tubing and paddling continue the fun, along with swimming and snorkeling in the wooded river and crystalline springs.
Pro Tip: The town of High Springs makes a charming add-on to a day at Ginnie Springs — known for its antiquing, restaurants, and historic buildings.
8. Manatee Springs State Park
Way down upon the Suwannee River, this magical place takes you away from 21st-century realities. Of course, it had me with the word “manatee” in its name. They may not come in the herds found other places, but that helps to keep Manatee Springs State Park relatively unknown and less visited. It is a perfect spot for a chill dip, a hike on the nature boardwalk and trails, a paddle into the legendary Suwannee, or an overnight glamping experience. Scuba diving in the first-magnitude spring is also permitted, and in season, rangers offer Conestoga wagon rides.
9. Warm Mineral Springs Park
Springs throughout Florida love to capitalize on the Fountain of Youth legend, but historically, Warm Mineral Springs has been at the head of the line. Through the ages, millions have waded into the 85-degree waters — Florida’s only natural warm-water springs — to cure what ails them. That includes creatures such as saber tooth tigers, giant sloths, and prehistoric humans whose remains have been discovered at the bottom of the springs. At one point, a cyclorama building housed historical murals chronicling Ponce de Leon’s legendary search for the Fountain of Youth. At various times, spa facilities and treatments complemented the springs’ healthful mineral contents — said to improve circulation, benefit skin conditions, and treat a litany of other ailments. Since the hurricanes of fall 2022, facilities are sparse, but the city of North Port currently keeps the springs open as it works on a master plan to redevelop the park.